This week my local trade union held its AGM, but I didn't attend. Partly because I forgot, and partly because it was a nice day and I chose to do my usual thing, wandering around the campus looking for things to photograph. This hardly makes me unusual: out of a membership of around 1000, I don't think I've ever seen more than 100 at a meeting, and more typically the number would be 25 or fewer.
But I have a long history as a trade union activist, so my absence may be counted as more significant. For 30 years I have picketed, been on strike, marched, leafleted, attended national Councils and innumerable interminable meetings, and held various positions on our local committee. I like to think a few older members, at least, will have noticed I wasn't there.
As a student, I found myself in a hotbed of political radicalism and factionalism, where a single word (say, "Kronstadt") was enough to start an argument that could last all night. I never had much time for the detail of the politics,* but the activism was very much to my taste, and I was easily persuaded to take part in two notorious (and in retrospect utterly pointless) occupations of university buildings which could easily have ended my university career if I had not been fast and strong enough to evade arrest (the first and last time I was grateful for my school's insistence that I play rugby as a wing forward).
When I first started work in 1978, it seemed only natural to become involved in the union. Indeed, my grandmother had been Mother of the Chapel at the Temple Press in Letchworth (it all sounds so churchy, doesn't it?), so there was a family tradition to live up to. As this was the cusp of the Thatcher Years, it made for interesting times. Strikes, marches, demonstrations, meetings. Endless meetings. It is well said that power and influence belong to those who can be bothered to turn up. You may recall that this was also the period of so-called Trotskyist "entryism" into the Labour Party: their strategy, frankly, was simply to turn up.
Of course, after the failure of the Miners' Strike and the anti-union legislation (that Labour, shamefully, has failed to reverse) and the purges of Militant from Labour, everything changed. We white-collar unionists became the majority, and the spirit, the sense of solidarity and continuity and history, just vanished. Being a trade unionist was like being at work, right down to the managerial language and the flipcharts.
So, what does it mean that I've started not turning up? I think it means I'm finally bored with giving up my time to sit in draughty rooms to listen to arguments I've heard a hundred times before, on behalf of other people who can never be bothered to turn up -- to the extent they will spend a day on strike at home, for the sake of appearances, but working and consequently refusing to lose a day's pay -- and who are sitting outside in the sunshine, blithely unconcerned that the pay, or pension, or even continued employment of some of their colleagues may be hanging by a thread. Ironically, by becoming a little more like the majority of union members, I feel rather less like representing them.
* Although I have maintained an affection for the likes of the Trotskyist Posadist tendency, who (completely rationally, if you ask me) posited that -- given the Marxist analysis of the historic inevitability of Socialism -- that UFOs must by definition be (a) visitors from a more advanced "future" society and therefore (b) socialist. Welcome, little green brothers and sisters!